Black Romance Novelists Talk Love In Difficult Times : Code Switch Too often, Black history is portrayed as a story of struggle and suffering, completely devoid of joy. So we called up some romance novelists whose work focuses on Black history. They told us that no matter how hard the times, there has always been room for love.
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Black Kiss-tory

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Black Kiss-tory

Black Kiss-tory

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Just a heads-up, this episode contains romantic content and a mild spoiler for "Bridgerton," so please proceed with caution.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

REGE-JEAN PAGE: (As Simon Basset) I cannot stop thinking of you.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

PAGE: (As Simon Basset) From the mornings you ease, to the evenings you quiet, to the dreams you inhabit.

MERAJI: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

PAGE: (As Simon Basset) I am yours, Daphne. I have always been yours.

GRIGSBY BATES: And what you just heard is "Bridgerton," currently Netflix's most-watched series, produced by Shonda Rhimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Full disclosure - I am not one of the masses who watched "Bridgerton" over the holidays because when everyone is doing something, I usually rebel and do the exact opposite. So hello, "Great Pottery Throw Down" (laughter). So Bates, remind me - what was "Bridgerton" all about again?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, Shereen, it dropped on Christmas Day, which feels a long time ago - and actually, it wasn't so much - and it's based on a popular set of books by Julia Quinn about England in the Regency era. And because it's Shonda Rhimes, who populates all of her series with people of color, "Bridgerton" has a lot of Black and brown and Asian folks during the latter part of the reign of King George III.

MERAJI: Yeah, and based off the billboards and all the ads, it looks so much more diverse than a lot of the historical romances on, say, Masterpiece Theatre that I've watched, where there's rarely lead Black characters or characters of color, let alone lead Black characters who get to have sexy love stories. There are definitely exceptions, but nothing quite like "Bridgerton."

GRIGSBY BATES: Some critics have dismissed all the diversity in "Bridgerton" as a complete fantasy. According to them, people of color didn't exist in Regency England. And the show's also brought up discussions and, again, dismissals of Black romance itself back in the day - like, how could Black people have had time for love and romance when we were in the midst of being colonized and enslaved?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So this week on CODE SWITCH, we're discussing Black love and romance in a historical context - how romance writers in particular have imagined that love and how understanding Black love over the course of history can give us a fuller, deeper understanding of all history.

GRIGSBY BATES: And what better time to talk about this because it's Black History Month and Valentine's week. So there will be surprises.

MERAJI: And swooning, lots of swooning.

GRIGSBY BATES: So pop the lid of your smelling salts. We'll be back in a thrice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

GRIGSBY BATES: Karen.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: You know, maybe this is just because this is when I came of age, but the '90s and the early 2000s seemed like a fertile time for Black love, at least on the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE AND BASKETBALL")

SANAA LATHAN: (As Monica Wright) I'll play you.

OMAR EPPS: (As Quincy McCall) What?

LATHAN: (As Monica Wright) One game, one on one.

EPPS: (As Quincy McCall) For what?

LATHAN: (As Monica Wright) Your heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POETIC JUSTICE")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (As Lucky) I know I made a mistake. But everybody make mistakes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BEST MAN")

MONICA CALHOUN: (As Mia) I offer you the very heart of me - pure, unconditional and everlasting. For love bears all things, endures all things.

MERAJI: But none of those movies were, quote-unquote, "historical romances," although at this point, Bates, they might be considered historic.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIGSBY BATES: Time marches on.

MERAJI: It does.

GRIGSBY BATES: But one place where Black love is on display through history, Shereen, is romance novels which feature Black people falling in love during the Colonial period, slavery, the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and in the U.S., in England, in the Caribbean, all over the world.

MERAJI: And you know I love love, and I am a sucker for romance and romance novels, but I feel like you might have to sell this to our listeners who are not as sentimental and are right about to find something else to listen to. Help them out, Karen.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) Well, Shereen, read I'm going to address that by reading you a passage from an article by a woman named Carole Bell. Quote, "There's much more to Black history than pain and hard times..."

CAROLE BELL: "...And romance authors, more than anyone else, know it. A writer friend told me that that's what he thinks some people outside of the culture don't care about Blackness - the sheer joy of it, especially given so many are only fixated on the struggle. Black romance thrives on complexity and nuance, on Black solidarity and achievement, on the triumph of everyday life lived well in spite of the odds. After all, something special happens when you marry African American history and the romance genre."

MERAJI: Dare I say, joy and pain is like sunshine and rain.

GRIGSBY BATES: Frankie Beverly just got a couple of pennies (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY AND PAIN")

MAZE: (Singing) Joy and pain are like sunshine and rain.

MERAJI: And who is Carole Bell, by the way?

GRIGSBY BATES: Carole, Shereen, is a writer, researcher, teacher and a self-described romance devotee, especially of Black romances. In a couple of articles, she's made the case for why people should read Black historical romance and listed her 15 favorite Black historical romances.

MERAJI: Fifteen favorites - that's a thorough list, especially from a genre that some people may consider niche.

GRIGSBY BATES: It is, but Carole says when she gets into something, she really gets into it.

BELL: So I have now read literally hundreds. And that's partly because of my personality, but it's partly when you become a romance fan, the genre is such that people really dive deep into it. There's a real emotional reward to the reading.

MERAJI: Despite that emotional reward, Karen, a lot of people roll their eyes. If you say you're reading a romance novel. It's kind of a marginalized genre.

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, despite the emotional reward and despite the fact that romance literally keeps the lights on for all other kinds of literature. I mean, we've talked about this before on the show, Shereen, but romance is one of the only genres of literature that's actually profitable. And without it, there would be no so-called literary literature.

BELL: So that's one side is that just romance in general is marginalized. But the other side of it is that Black authors are marginalized within romance, right? So then you have this sort of double marginalization.

MERAJI: Which unfortunately is not at all surprising to me. And today we're talking about Black historical romance, so I'm going to assume that's triply marginalized.

GRIGSBY BATES: Correct. But Carole says being all three of those things is really important.

BELL: Black people didn't arrive, you know, in American society in the 1960s, right? And part of the erasure of Black people from historical fiction and historical romance in particular, I think, is because of this idea of, well, romance is, you know, escape and it's for fun. And so much of American history with regard to Black people is ugly, therefore, we don't really want to think about that.

MERAJI: That's a really good point. We often think of romance as escapist reading, and the real world is supposed to, like, fade out into the background. But it's harder to escape racism. So, you know, Black romance does have to walk a fine line between fantasy and reality.

GRIGSBY BATES: Exactly. And I was really curious to hear from some of the authors on Carole's list about how exactly they strike that balance because it isn't easy to get right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Reading) Since Mrs. Milford believed in having Negroes lead their own, Virgil was a hand-picked choice for mayor. His first act as mayor was to send for and greet the town's first schoolmaster, come to Georgia to teach the free and the formerly enslaved to read and write. But when Virgil and his daughter March rounded the corner to where the once-a-day train dropped off cargo and people and chugged on to Savannah, there was no school master waiting on the platform. Instead, on the train bench sat the most beautiful lady he had ever seen. He would have been no less surprised if a colorful parrot or macaw from one of the Milford grandchildren's picture books came and lit (ph) on the wooden bench. She must be the schoolmaster's wife. Such a beautiful lady must be married to a high-up man like a schoolmaster. Where was the schoolmaster?

MERAJI: Hello. She's the school master. I could have seen that coming from a mile away. The beautiful lady is the schoolmaster. Am I right, Karen?

GRIGSBY BATES: You're right, Shereen. But if we're being technical, the schoolmaster is actually a schoolmistress.

MERAJI: Oh, right.

GRIGSBY BATES: And that was a slightly abridged excerpt from "The Preacher's Promise" by...

PIPER HUGULEY: Piper Huguely. And I'm in Atlanta, Ga. And I am a professor of English at Clark Atlanta University. And I am also a writer of historical fiction novels.

GRIGSBY BATES: Piper writes romances that feature Black folks in the South after the Civil War. She says she was tired of the same narrative she'd always seen that focused on the misery of slavery and the brevity of the Reconstruction era right after slavery ended officially.

HUGULEY: So we tend to remember more the end result of Reconstruction, as opposed to remembering that first sort of bittersweet time when things were actually going pretty well.

GRIGSBY BATES: And that was a very heady time, I would imagine, when racial progress - people were feeling that there was real possibility in racial progress.

HUGULEY: Exactly.

MERAJI: The future looked bright. It was probably a wonderful time to fall in love, even if it was short-lived.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. So Piper's books focus on that creation of Black community right after the war, the determination to, as Booker T. Washington used to say, uplift the race.

HUGULEY: You know, there is a long history of people who came together in love and continued to advance themselves into hope for a better future for their children.

GRIGSBY BATES: Which brings us back to "The Preacher's Promise."

MERAJI: That's right, brings us back to the schoolmaster - excuse me - the schoolmistress,

GRIGSBY BATES: Thank you.

MERAJI: ...The beautiful school mistress. What's the story there, Bates?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, the plot follows the leader of a newly established town of free people. His name is Virgil. And he comes to the train station to pick up the teacher he's hired for the school the town is building, only as we notice the he turns out to be a she. And as we heard a moment ago, she is beautiful, and he is freaked.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) Shivers went up her arms at his words - a wedding, her wedding - to this man she had not even known for two whole days. It was that or be a soiled (ph) dove to a man she had known all of her life.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Oh, I see where this is going. Shivers just went up my arms. They're going to get married to keep the gossips quiet, but they're going to end up falling in love.

GRIGSBY BATES: Eventually, but not without some trials and tribulations first. But I'm not going to give any of the twists away, Shereen.

MERAJI: How rude.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIGSBY BATES: By the way, Piper has a number of novels set before the end of the 19th century, all of them are romantic, but they're also infused with women's empowerment. I think you might recognize this story.

HUGULEY: It's a very important occasion in labor history that was started, fomented and continued on by Black women.

MERAJI: If it's something I'd recognize, she's probably talking about the Atlanta washerwomen strike, which we also talked about on our Balls and Strikes episode.

GRIGSBY BATES: Ding, ding, ding, ding. She is indeed. And remember, that strike happened in 1881. So we're talking 20 years or so after the Civil War began.

HUGULEY: One of the first successful labor strikes in the United States, by the way. And these women were not having the pennies that they felt they were being offered for such an endeavor.

MERAJI: That endeavor being laundering white people's clothes. So Piper's novella is that history plus romance. I love it.

GRIGSBY BATES: Me too. It's called "The Washerwomen's War."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Karen, one of the things you mentioned at the beginning of this episode was this critique of "Bridgerton," this idea that Black people or people of color, they were just not in certain situations, that a show like "Bridgerton" is absurd because it's a total fantasy. It never could have happened.

GRIGSBY BATES: Oh, yeah. I've seen the tweets and the complaints - and there were lots of both. And first of all, some of the people I spoke to say there's nothing wrong with fantasy. These stories are imaginary, duh. They're made up, so many parts of them are unrealistic. And the idea that race is the thing that people are getting mad about says a lot about the people who have a problem with the fact that race is part of the plot.

MERAJI: I would have to agree with that assessment.

GRIGSBY BATES: And to get into more of this, let's meet author Alissa Cole.

ALYSSA COLE: You know, there used to be short romance stories in like the tabloid magazines. Sometimes I would take my little white-out pen or white-out stick, and I would write out the description of the characters.

MERAJI: So Alyssa was literally whiting out the white characters.

MERAJI: She was. And she eventually replaced them with her own. Her first romance novel, "Eagle's Heart," took place in Brooklyn. And the heroine was a Black teacher. And the hero was an Albanian FBI agent. And his partner was a white lesbian. And her best friend was a bisexual Latina. All the types of people, she says, that she grew up around.

MERAJI: I did, too, actually, except for maybe the Albanian FBI agent.

GRIGSBY BATES: And you don't really know whether you did or not, you know?

MERAJI: Yeah, that's true.

GRIGSBY BATES: But an early review of that book wasn't buying those characters. It asks the question, is Brooklyn really that diverse?

COLE: That was kind of my wake-up call that people really were determined to believe in the idea of totally white spaces, even though those are very rare, and totally headspaces, even though those are rare.

MERAJI: It sounds like "Eagle Heart" (ph) is more of a contemporary romance and that that determination to believe nobody brown was around just doesn't seem to go away, even though that belief is a fantasy, whether we're talking about contemporary times or the olden days.

COLE: People always talk about historical accuracy. Historical accuracy isn't usually accurate.

GRIGSBY BATES: And that, Shereen, is mostly because history often takes a single point of view - the majority population's. So Alyssa decided she was going to enlarge that spectrum, and she did it in ways that are actually completely rooted in real history.

COLE: One of my more well-known first books is a book called "An Extraordinary Union," and it's based on the real life Civil War spy Mary Bowser who had a photographic memory. And she was a formerly enslaved woman who was a spy in Jefferson Davis' household. And like most of my stories, I see something that I find interesting. And then I think, what if there was kissing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) He was tired of talking, of pretending, of not saying the right thing. He grabbed her by the chin, tilted her head up and kissed her. Her hands went to his shoulders, the pressure of her pulling herself into their kiss, an unexpected addition to his excitement. His mouth moved over hers slowly but not softly. He intended to show her exactly how he felt since his words kept failing him. Dear Lord, she murmured against his lips, and he felt as if he could take on the entire Confederacy himself in that moment.

MERAJI: I'm going to hope that's not Jefferson Davis.

GRIGSBY BATES: No, that's not Jefferson Davis.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yeah, good.

GRIGSBY BATES: It's in the David household.

MERAJI: And for those who forgot, Jefferson Davis would go on to be the president of the Confederacy.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, that's correct. This is from the point of view of Elle's love interest, Malcolm.

MERAJI: Got it.

GRIGSBY BATES: And, Shereen, a lot of people really loved this book, which is actually part of a series. But Alyssa says it also got a lot of questioning and skepticism. And she thinks some of that is animated by the racist idea that goes back to at least slavery, which is that Black people are not capable of love.

COLE: Whether loving a family member or romantic love. And I think that's something that has been cultivated in the American consciousness and subconsciousness to the point that it even affects people picking up a book that is supposed to be an escape because people will really nitpick Black romance novels. Would the heroine really be doing this? Could she really be a scientist? Could she really be a spy? Would she talk like that? Would they meet? Would that be possible? There's always this kind of - and this goes back to the accuracy thing. The books are accurate, but the people who are questioning them, their perception of the world is not accurate.

MERAJI: Boom, boom. You know that in the future, if certain people were reading about this time, this year, they would probably be making similar arguments. We're living through a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people. Black people are being victimized by police brutality. There's all kinds of racism. There couldn't have been time for things like romance, right? Things were horrible.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's exactly what Alyssa said.

COLE: And the way I think of it is 50 years from now, 100 years from now, people will look back at 2020 and say, how could anyone have been happy during this time? How could anyone have fallen in love? How could anyone have achieved anything? And we're just here living our lives as best we can. And I think that's the same thing that people in the past were doing.

GRIGSBY BATES: Shereen, there's one more person I want to introduce you to. All the authors I interviewed told me there is one uncontested mistress of the Black historical romance novel.

MERAJI: I know who this is.

COLE: You know, I'm going to say Beverly Jenkins (laughter).

CAROLE V BELL: I discovered Beverly Jenkins...

HUGULEY: The wonderful, legendary work of Beverly Jenkins.

BEVERLY JENKINS: My name is Beverly Jenkins. I am outside of Detroit, and I am a writer, a romance writer. I'm proud to write romance.

GRIGSBY BATES: And full disclosure here, Shereen, I've known Bev for over a decade. We met at a friend's birthday party in New Orleans years ago and have been pen pals ever since.

MERAJI: Miss Beverly Jenkins is a legend. You call her Bev. I will never do that. Even if you've never read one of her books, you would definitely recognize their covers. It's often two Black people passionately embracing in front of, like, a sunset, looking gorgeous.

GRIGSBY BATES: Lots of exposed shoulders for the women and exposed chests for the men. Yeah,

MERAJI: Twelve-packs going on.

GRIGSBY BATES: There you go. And the other folks we spoke to said they rarely saw Black folks in the romances they were reading except in the work of Beverly Jenkins. And Bev is prolific. She's a many times over bestseller and one of only two Black Lifetime Achievement Award honorees from the Romance Writers of America. She's written more than 40 books to date.

MERAJI: Forty books.

GRIGSBY BATES: Forty books.

MERAJI: Does this woman sleep?

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) I don't know. Probably less than you or I do. It is a lot.

MERAJI: And since we've been talking about history, what is Miss Jenkins' origin story? How did the legend come to be?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, like Alyssa and Piper, Beverly has had romance on her mind for decades.

JENKINS: I always loved a good love story, I mean, even when there was nothing in the mass media that reflected who I am and, you know, my cousins and, you know, parents and those people at church who'd been married for 50 years and were still holding hands going to the car after church. So I was basically just writing it for me and sort of stumbled into the publishing world. I write little-known African American history, I think. So I write about the brown and Black lawmen and outlaws of Indian territory. I write about the all-Black towns on the plains of Kansas and Nebraska as a result of the great exodus of 1879, which a lot of people don't know about.

GRIGSBY BATES: Bev, like the other authors we've spoken to, is not just a prolific writer, Shereen. She's also a prolific reader and researcher, which she says is fundamental to her books.

JENKINS: I stand on the shoulders of actual scholars - Benjamin Quarles and Dorothy Sterling and Tera Hunter and Nell Painter. You know, you take that history, and you weave it through the story, and you get not only a great love story, which is, you know, positive for my readers, but, you know, they're also learning as they go along.

GRIGSBY BATES: One of Beverly's books, "Indigo," was featured on Carole Bell's list.

MERAJI: Which we mentioned earlier. That's the list of 15 must-read Black historical romances.

GRIGSBY BATES: And Beverly's on there more than once. "Indigo" features Hester, a woman with very, very dark skin as its heroine. It's set at a time when dark skin wasn't considered beautiful by many people, including many Black people. But in "Indigo," Hester is described as an undeniable beauty.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Hester removed her shoes, and once she was barefoot, she felt so out of her element, she hesitated to join him at the river's edge. The years of stomping raw indigo plants had stained her feet far more heavily than her hands. Her feet were purple all the way past her ankles. Galen, this is very embarrassing for me. I won't let it be. There's not a portion of your body that isn't beautiful, Hester Wyatt. It was the second time today he referred to her as beautiful. She had no idea how to react to such a comment. No one had ever described her in those terms before.

GRIGSBY BATES: "Indigo" is about 25 years old, and Bev says the reaction when it was first published was intense.

JENKINS: Women were weeping at the signings because they had never been centered in a story like that before. They were crying. And booksellers are crying. Everybody's crying. I'm crying.

GRIGSBY BATES: And "Indigo" has become a beloved classic, especially to women who see themselves reflected in it, and not just for the representation.

JENKINS: The thing that they're most proud of is the history, to be able to say that we were more than slaves and sharing that history with their kids and their grandkids. I'm on my fourth generation of readers now, and it's been an amazing ride - amazing ride.

MERAJI: An amazing ride, but it's not over yet.

GRIGSBY BATES: It's not. And hopefully it won't be anytime soon.

JENKINS: You know, when it's time for me to go greet the great editor in the sky, you know, I'm going to be pounding on my urn saying, wait, you know, I still got stories to write. Because there's so much out there that has yet to be discovered and presented in a way that people can relate to - user-friendly history. So I just want to keep writing. That's all (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That was the great romance writer Beverly Jenkins. And that's our show. And if you can't go out this Valentine's Day, which you can't - stay home - we hope this episode inspires you to cozy up to one of those books.

GRIGSBY BATES: Maybe even do a read-aloud with that special someone. And wear something romantic.

MERAJI: Or nothing at all.

GRIGSBY BATES: Shereen.

MERAJI: Ooh-la-la. Remember, you can follow CODE SWITCH on Twitter and Instagram @NPRCodeSwitch. You can email us at codeswitch@npr.org and subscribe to our newsletter by going to npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAD SALAMANDERS' "THE EXOTIC SANDY WARNER")

GRIGSBY BATES: This episode was produced by Jess Kung with help from our intern Summer Thomad. It was also fact-checked by Summer. It was edited by Leah Donnella. And special thanks to our readers for helping us out with excerpts from the books.

MERAJI: And a shoutout to the rest of the CS familia - Kumari Devarajan, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Natalie Escobar, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. Gene's going to be back next week. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See ya.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAD SALAMANDERS' "THE EXOTIC SANDY WARNER")

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